Editor for Life: Sylvia Pollard, Freelance Book Editor and Composer

Interview conducted by Keith Goddard.

A career as an editor is often a solo adventure, especially if you’re a freelancer. So, we thought one way to better connect with fellow editors was to ask them the Five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. Read on for some thought-provoking, enlightening tidbits from those of us who choose to work with words to earn our keep.

Photo of Sylvia Pollard

Please tell us a little about yourself, the kind of work you do (and where you live), and how long you’ve been an editor.

I’m a freelance book editor and music composer living with my partner, an urban planner, in Victoria, near my mom and one of my sisters. I grew up moving frequently, as my father was in the military. Our cottage in Muskoka, just north of Toronto, was always home. After our posting in Germany, I moved to Ottawa to attend university, and I lived there for thirty-some years. I started out in music, but my bachelor of arts is in English and geography. I can write about landscapes! After working for the federal government for several years, I started my own editing and writing business, Pollard Editing, specializing in literary fiction. I also contributed to the Arts section of Capital Xtra! I then followed my dream of becoming an in-house editor, and, in 2004, I was hired by the Canadian Psychiatric Association and became senior copy editor of The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry

Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?

I would be happiest editing an author whose books I love to read. Often, these books tap into the zeitgeist and involve a combination of music, psychology, interesting landscapes, and a poetic sensibility.

Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson come to mind. Their books represent just about everything I look for in a book. I often wish I were the editor of the books I read, because I enjoy them so much. Right now that’s Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Of deceased authors, I would probably choose Virginia Woolf. She was so innovative, intelligent, and sensitive. As the war in Ukraine continues, I’ve been thinking about her and how WWII caused her so much pain. I can relate to this pain. 

What: What is the one thing that has helped you the most in your career as an editor?

A few things shaped me early on in becoming an editor. 

In grade five, I was put in a special class to help with my reading and comprehension, which were deemed to be suffering! Since then, I read every word. For an editor, I believe this is very important. 

In the early 1990s, while working for the federal government, I was promoted to a manager of policy, in recognition of my strong writing and editing skills. This gave me a sense of identity and purpose.

Then, around 2000, three things happened:

“So You Want to Be an Editor”—I picked up this pamphlet at The Word On The Street [a festival celebrating literacy and Canadian writing], in Ottawa. It was published by the Editors’ Association of Canada. I had left my policy management job with the federal government and wanted to pursue a more creative, writerly career. This pamphlet got me moving in that direction. I joined the association in 2000.

“Fiction Writing Workshop”—I was accepted into this class with Tom Henighan, professor of English, at Carleton University. He was a tough but wonderful teacher—my favourite kind. In his class, I revised my draft novel into a short story, which he and my classmates heavily criticized. I revised it again, and Professor Henighan praised my tenacious editing and compared my writing to some of his favourite Nordic authors. I submitted my short story to a literary magazine, Blood & Aphorisms (b+a), and, after further editing, it was published! This probably cemented my idea of becoming an editor, if not a writer.

Louise Penny—I first became conscious of her while reading a feature in The Globe and Mail on two important women in Canadian publishing, author Louise Penny being one. I was a burgeoning editor, and she was extremely inspiring. 

Getting back to your question, I would say editing The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry helped me the most in my career as an editor. The sheer volume of work, the preciseness of language, the importance and sensitivity of mental health, liaising with authors and staff, distilling content to write media advisories—it all helped in honing and broadening my skills, and I owe a lot to Virginia St-Denis, Melinda Hodgins, Smita Hamzeh, Candace Taylor, Elizabeth Payne, Hélène Côté, Jadranka Bacic, and everyone who worked at the Canadian Psychiatric Association. Being an in-house editor was a dream come true!

Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?

I would love to be sent brilliant manuscripts at either my imaginary remote seaside cottage in Scotland or my actual riverside cottage in Muskoka.

When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?

Never seriously, no, because I identify so strongly as an editor. It’s who I am.

I would love to be an in-house editor again, for a publishing house or the federal government. I like the camaraderie and the importance and steady flow of the work.

Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?

I think it chose me. The first inkling came to me in my early thirties while visiting my parents. We were watching a British murder mystery program. The main character was an editor. She had her desk oriented so she could look out her second-floor home office window onto the street. She was thinking, observing, working. Connected, but independent. That image, and the concept of being an editor, viscerally resonated with me.

I call myself a kitchen-table editor. I like to hear people around me, going about their own work. This goes back to my school days, with my family around as I did my homework.

Being an editor is like being a professional student—immersed in a subject, surrounded by books, connected to the world around me. I love it!

And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?

“Everyone needs an editor—even an editor!” 

With this motto, I hope to take away some stress from my clients, my colleagues, and myself, because no one is perfect.

Margaret Atwood has said she wasn’t a good speller in school, though she’s better now. I imagine she relies on her editor. I’m not the greatest speller, either, but I believe I have great instincts, and, fortunately, I relish looking things up!

Keith Goddard is a freelance editor specializing in music and educational content. He is the editor-in-chief of BoldFace.

This article was copy edited by Josephine Mo, an acquisitions editor at an educational publisher in Toronto. She is an avid fiction reader, Wordle player, and ailurophile.

One thought on “Editor for Life: Sylvia Pollard, Freelance Book Editor and Composer

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